Charitable organizations across the country say they are worried that the Trump Administration’s changes to the country’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, will hurt the most economically vulnerable Americans.
One of the rule changes announced last week could drop almost 700,000 people from coverage by 2021. It would limit the time able-bodied adults (between 18 and 49-years-old) without dependents would be allowed assistance through the program to three months over a 36-month period — unless they meet certain work, volunteer service, or school or education requirements. Critics say they are concerned the reforms will hurt some of society’s most low-income citizens. The changes could also put a major strain on organizations like food banks that are already struggling to help people living in poverty or trying to make ends meet.
“The ultimate impact of the rule change, whether intended or not, will be to increase food insecurity and hunger in Rhode Island,” said Andrew Schiff, the Chief Executive Officer of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, in a statement emailed to Telegraph Local.
The organization distributes about 223,000 pounds of food to people in the state each week. But that figure may need to increase significantly with federal changes that are set to go into effect in April 2020. That’s because Rhode Island is one of the state’s that will feel one of the biggest impacts of the new reforms. It is one of eight states where more than five percent of households would lose their SNAP benefits under the new rules, according to the Urban Institute.
“The Food Bank and its member agencies will need additional support to meet the increased demand for food from these individuals,” noted Schiff.
But proponents of the reforms say the changes are long overdue. They note SNAP was never meant to be a long-term solution for able-bodied adults without dependents. But it was, instead, geared for help people struggling economically in the short-term. They say it was originally intended to give people a helping hand while they got back on their feet during financial hard times.
History of food stamps
The first food stamp program was established in the 1930s. The original program allowed people on relief to buy orange stamps to supplement their food expenditures. For every dollar of orange stamps people purchased, they would get an additional 50 cents worth of blue stamps, which could then be used to buy certain foods deemed to be surplus by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Food Stamp Act officially went into effect during the Johnson Administration and has expanded and gone through various incarnations since. About 36 million people currently receive SNAP assistance. The assistance has historically come with conditions. There have been time limits and work requirements since the 1990s, when major federal welfare reforms were introduced by the Clinton Administration.
SNAP assistance previously limited adults under 50 (and without dependents) to three months of benefits in a three-year period, unless they were employed or in a training program for at least 20 hours a week. But many states were able to apply for waivers to the limits if they had areas of high unemployment.
At one point or another nearly every state has utilized this waiver. But under the new rules this waiver cannot be utilized as easily.
The USDA has said too many states have “taken advantage of” loopholes in the system.
“This manipulation is demonstrated by the fact that currently about half of the [able-bodied adults with no dependents] on SNAP live in waived areas, despite low unemployment levels across the majority of the country,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Under the new rules, states can no longer ask Washington to temporarily waive the restrictions except for areas with an unemployment rate of 10 percent or more. On Friday, the nationwide unemployment rate fell to 3.5 percent, the lowest it has been since 1969.
“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a public statement.
“Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work. This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”
Purdue has said in the past that some states had been using the waivers as a loophole to bypass eligibility guidelines. The changes introduced last week are estimated to save $5.5 billion over five years. But they would also push about 688,000 people out of eligibility.
The USDA has also proposed more rule changes that could close additional loopholes. Under these proposals, people with incomes of up to 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $50,000 for a family of four, would not be able to receive food stamps in particular circumstances. The agency also wants to drop households with more than $2,250 in assets, or $3,500 for a household with a disabled adult, from the food stamp program.
That could strip nearly 3 million people of their benefits, and nearly 1 million children would lose automatic eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals.
Why critics of the new reforms are worried
Organizations that work with the poor say there are many ways able-bodied adults may not meet the new work requirements. Vicky Negus of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute says she helped one woman who was employed part time and was struggling to help her kids get into college. But as soon as they turned 18, they were no longer considered dependents, so the woman was ineligible for SNAP assistance after three months.
“She just couldn’t piece it together,” Negus said. “She was still working, but it wasn’t enough.”
Nevin Cohen, research director of the Urban Food Policy Institute at CUNY, had a blunt assessment of the new changes.
“It’s a punitive measure,” he told Vice.com.
“The goal of the administration is to cut SNAP plain and simple… without regard for people who will suffer malnourishment, or whose households will be hurt by the changes.”
He went on to note that national unemployment numbers may be declining, but that doesn’t mean every community has access to good jobs.
“While national unemployment figures are down, in individual communities there may not be access to jobs,” he said.
“Individuals who are out of work and receiving SNAP benefits may not qualify for the jobs that are available, and the jobs that they do qualify for might not be in their communities … If the available jobs for unskilled people without a lot of work experience are located way across town, and people need to drive a car to get to those jobs, those jobs may be theoretically available, but not practically.”
The politics of food
President Donald Trump’s political adversaries were quick to voice their opposition to the changes. New York Senator Chuck Schumer called the changes “heartless.”
“The Trump administration is driving the vulnerable into hunger just as the Christmas season approaches,” he told The New York Times.
“It is heartless. It is cruel. It exposes a deep and shameful cruelness, and hypocrisy in this administration.”
Other Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also blasted the move.
“Instead of combating food insecurity for millions, connecting workers to good-paying jobs or addressing income inequality, the administration is inflicting their draconian rule on millions of Americans across the nation who face the highest barriers to employment and economic stability,” she said.
But conservatives and Republicans say some of the criticism is unwarranted and just political gamesmanship. New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is coming under fire for alleging her family would have starved had the new changes been in place after her father died.
“My family relied on food stamps (EBT) when my dad died at 48. I was a student. If this happened then, we might’ve just starved. Now, many people will,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter.
“It’s shameful how the GOP works overtime to create freebies for the rich while dissolving lifelines of those who need it most.”
The conservative Washington think tank, the Heritage Foundation, blasted the freshman congresswoman’s claim, noting it was misleading.
“The rule applies to able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who do not have dependents,” it noted.
“The rule wouldn’t apply to parents with minor children, the elderly, or disabled people.”
Ocasio-Cortez was about 19-years-old and heading off to her sophomore year at Boston University when her father died of lung cancer.
Democrat presidential candidates have also supported measures to curtail the use of food stamps. As mayor of New York City, Democratic primary candidate Michael Bloomberg wanted to prevent some low-income New Yorkers from receiving SNAP benefits for certain food items. They included sweetened beverages like iced tea, sodas, and energy drinks.
He argued that the changes would create a positive impact on the health of lower-income people. But critics called the proposal patronizing, saying that he stigmatized recipients by implying that they should not or could not make their own food and shopping choices. They also said, he did not put such restrictions on the wealthy when he provided generous tax cuts.
Democrat primary candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden recently blasted Trump for the SNAP reforms.
“I think there are important things we have to offer for free for people who need basic health care, basic education, basic needs that relate to how they can live their lives,” he said.
“I think for many people that has to be free. Look, he’s just cut back on food stamps, for God’s sake, going into Christmas.
But as as a senator in 1996, Biden supported welfare work requirements (under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act) pushed for and enacted by former President Bill Clinton. He now calls similar legislation, “morally bankrupt.”
“The culture of welfare must be replaced with the culture of work,” Biden said in a speech before the senate in 1996.
“The culture of dependence must be replaced with the culture of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. And, the culture of permanence must no longer be a way of life … everyone [in the Senate] believes that work should be the premise of our welfare system.”
The Trump Administration touts the low unemployment figures as a way out of poverty, noting that food stamps were not designed to replace income earned through work. Conservatives also point out that long-term SNAP assistance for those who are able to work creates a culture of dependency.
But those who assist people in poverty say that is an over-simplification of what they see on the ground.
“People don’t often think of people needing help right now, but people are under-employed and people are one repair or health care bill away from needing a little help,” Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland in Minnesota, told TV station KARE11.
And that will negatively impact food banks and non-government and charitable organizations — like the Rhode Island Community Food Bank — because of the sheer number of people that will become ineligible for SNAP assistance.
“When these individuals lose their benefits in July, they will have to turn to the Food Bank’s network of food pantries and soup kitchens for food assistance,” Schiff said.